Tuesday, August 18, 2009

BYT: The Felice Brothers win the Battle of the Bands


Live DC: Route 29 (Iron & Wine, Felice Brothers, Levon Helm et al) @ Merriweather
August 18, 2009 by Peter ShareThis Send to a Friend Send to a Friend

all photos by: Paul Goodman
all words by: Peter Heyneman

There comes a time in a man’s life where he falls gently into the lap of a big fat sunlight festival of a certain variety. It’s roughly about the same time that it becomes more appropriate for him to sing the Eagles than R. Kelly at karaoke night. When you’re young you avoid the fields and the mudpits and overpriced water because you’re both broke and well stocked in badass rock and roll at the local VFW thanks very much, but somehow one day you’re 30 and lying sunburned on a towel with a half-drunk on and the sun’s setting and Wilco or something is playing on the other side of a football field and you get up and dance with the dirty-feeting teenagers from Southern Maryland because goddamn it you have to work tomorrow and every day for the rest of your life. So I jumped about a mile out of my desk chair when I saw the line-up for the Route 29 show at Merriweather Post this Sunday, and I had to borrow a car and head out there. I couldn’t do it every weekend, or even more than say, twice a year, but a long down-home country-alt fest just hits the spot sometimes, almost like hiking, or going to mass and receiving the wafer and the wine. Sometimes being bored and depressed is as close to relaxed as old folks can get.

Justin Jones looked hot and sounded somewhat disappointed by the milling steamy mass. “Is this a High School talent show? I hope we win,” he told the muttering khaki folks as they started filing in at 3:30. Their music isn’t going to win any awards for originality but after I left the big iron tent in front of the stage and lay on the grass under the furnace with my shoes off and pulled a tiny airplane bottle of Jack Daniels out of my pocket and dumped it into a 4 dollar pink Gatorade and chugged it as his steel guitar soaked regretfully through the air then I started feeling it a lot more better. He’s a handsome handsome man, I’ll give him that; hunched up there on the big screen he looked like a lost fighter pilot waiting for a chopper out of Hanoi still running guns into Cambodia. “The first prize is tickets to the big football game again St. Mary’s,” he claimed. I could tell it was going to be a day like that, I could tell.

The Felice Brothers were one of the main reasons I came along to this show and they managed to defy both the heat and the marked lack of drunkenness to get everyone to believe it was 2am on a Friday at a shitty blues pub in Knoxville. They popped out and started blasting through boozy, messy, limestone slabs of folk rock with the same No Limit Records baller bullshit attitude that makes the Black Lips better than a garage band too. How the fuck is this fair? Somehow these kids from Upstate NY who moved to Brooklyn and wore vests and stupid porkpie hats and worshiped CafĂ© Wha and memorized Richard Farina and smoked a million cigarettes (kids of which type there are only 8 million in NY) dug themselves a hole so deep they hit real gravel, the gravel left there by a construction company in the mid-70s making a mausoleum for Ramblin’ Jack to lie down in. Ian Felice’s voice sound 1000 years old and his wispy mustache and goofy overly serious stoned expression make you believe he traded all his marbles for it with the devil, who loves to play marbles, even now.

The other brother James is huge and smokes while he bends over the Wurlitzer. They played sea shanties and land shanties. The fiddle player hit a cymbal with his washboard. They played a song about Jesus and Old Crow Medicine Show dudes snuck out and rattled stuff and played electric guitars. They fell out of tune and they stood on the amps and somehow made a song about a dead chicken seem fucking portentous. When they were done they all hugged each-other wildly and threw their stupid hats in the air. It was obvious; improbably, and against all odds, they had won the Battle of the Bands. I felt so close to Paradise that I could actually sense Beatrice’s hand slip into mine firmly and pull upwards, into the burning circle of the center of existence that spins forever at the tiptop of the diamond shaped universe.

Then Grace Potter came out wearing a totally ridiculous shimmery dress that made her boogie knees stick out like whack-a-moles and vamped like a bobo 90s Aretha and it hit me: I had heatstroke. Her music would be perfect if I was trying to get my Dad laid but it sounded utterly phony and slick after the gorgeous outlaws that just played so I went into the way-back of the giant field and lat on a shady bench and stared into the trees and imagined what it will be like to be dead until she was over. Wait! No she was doing an encore by popular demand of herself. “Thanks a lot we’re done slight pause do you want to hear some more really aw shucks!” Maybe if I was not dehydrated and sobering up it would have been less grating, but she sounded like that Black Velvet bitch backed up my Southern Country On the Skids. Barf. I did.

After way too long to get all of her shit out of there Sam Beam walked out with a magnificent beard glowing in the sunset and whispered courageously into a maw of yodeling drunks for 45 minutes. I’ve been an insane fan of his since I heard Jesus the Mexican Boy on a pirate college radio station (MAX ALT HIT POINTS UNLOCKED) and I never went to see him live because I was sure I would be bored without the overdriven dual harmonies recorded on cheap analog tape. I was not wrong, but it was that sleepy hippie boredom I’d been craving. Half-dozing to the familiar songs played flawlessly and nimbly, I realized at one point that a weird muted singalong had started and he was singing the harmony part of Sodom South Georgia to the crowd murmuring the melody and stopping at the ends of the lines, bringing a thousand people to dead silence. I wanted to give him a big Felice Brothers hug, but I doubt he is not a hologram or Civil War phantom. Nobody with a beard that luxuriant could be corporeal.

By the time Levon Helm’s “band” came out and made mediocre middle aged Blues noises I was in the happy field place where I don’t really give a shit what goes on as long as I’m drinking vaguely bobbing and stomping in the dust with the rest of the beggars. Two bronze teenage chicks from West Virginia sexydanced together completely oblivious to the boys who brought them there. A massive meathead with arms like willow roots poking out of his tie-dyed tanktop hunched under his lowbrimmed terps cap and stepped from foot to foot brandishing two Bud-lite bottles as totems. Levon Helm of the Band was too old and sick to sing so various kindhearted session musicians did it for him but nobody cared and the sun went down cheerfully.

Old Crow Medicine Show was great but I was complexly erased by that point. I’m really really glad they exist, because bluegrass is really as punk rock as Blues or Irish toodle shit and Jon Spencer and the Pogues already exist so why not? Traditional fans and rednecks and garage rockers and hardcore Boston dudes and bronze WV teenagers can get behind it, but my brain hurt. They just jumped around a lot or something as far as I know, but my knees were shot and night time is hardly the right time for loud fiddle music, even if they’re doing Eric Burdon and Stones covers, so I went home woozy and joyful before they even did Wagon Wheel, which I bet they did right after I left goddamnit. I’ll put it on twice next time I’m at the Tune Inn just for revenge against myself.

Let me put it this way, there’s only a certain portion of your life that will be golden, the proximity of which is like the physical body of a girl you have a hopeless crush on—when she’s there, you’re useless, so don’t try to do anything. You only figure this out once you’re old though, when the information doesn’t do you any good. The best you can do is be very very still and let things pass by you without thinking about them too much, blunting your overactive imagination against the walls of your tomb as it’s being built, brick by brick, until you are just nothing, the blue sweet melted dregs of a snowcone at the bottom of a styrofoam cup, tilted back, touching the lips, then gone, forever. See you next year!